Classical Voice News                                


Nuno Miguel Marques
Classical Voice News

March 22, 2002

IN 1958, for the first and only time, the voice, the stage presence and art of Maria Callas graced the most historic of Portuguese opera houses: Lisbon's Teatro Nacional de São Carlos.  Despite playing Violetta in only two performances (the 27th and 30th of March), Maria Callas' performance earned a place in operatic history.  Even today, when the Lisbon Traviata is mentioned, one automatically thinks of Callas, even though the São Carlos had been privileged to witness other sublime Violettas by Caniglia (1948), Tebaldi (1950), Zeani (1957), Scotto (1968) and Sutherland (1974).  As usual, the Portuguese national public radio station, Emissora Nacional de Radiodifusão -- nowadays called Rádio Difusão Portuguesa or RDP -- broadcast live the opening night performance, where Callas was joined by Alfredo Kraus as Alfredo, Mario Sereni as Giorgio Germont, with Franco Ghione conducting the Orquestra Sinfônica Nacional, Portugal's National Symphony Orchestra.  The occasion marked Maria Callas' debut in Portugal, an importante event the Emissora Nacional lost no time in archiving the original iron oxide tapes


With the passing of time, these tapes were either forgotten or feared lost, when suddenly, in Europe and the United States, various unauthorized editions of the Lisbon Traviata appeared.  Though unauthorized, the editions were welcomed with justified enthusiasm, for they made available to a worldwide audience a performance which had gained a legendary aura.  The only regret was their precarious and muffled sound, which obscured the subtlety of Callas' interpretation, as well as Kraus' glorious vocalism.  This inferior sound quality can be heard in the well-known and much sold version of EMI's 1980 commercial release.
Taking into account that only RDP possessed the original tapes, the appearance of several unauthorized issues of the Lisbon Traviata raised the question of which source tapes were used by these versions.  Applying good old common sense, João Pereira Bastos, the director of Antena 2 (Antena 2 is the RDP channel dedicated to classical music and jazz), refused to speculate on this matter, though he points out that every artist participating in a musical performance broadcast by the RDP is granted a copy of the tape upon request, extended as a personal courtesy as long as the copy is used solely for personal archive purposes.  Therefore, it is conceivable that Alfredo Kraus or Mario Sereni were given copies of their performances under this practice, which eventually the artists might have entrusted to record companies. And indeed they did so.  Ed Rosen, who produced the first unofficial edition of the Lisbon Traviata, informed Opera-L (an internet discussion list) he had acquired a copy of the mentioned performance through the generosity of Alfredo Kraus.  Fearing the loss of the original tapes, the Spanish tenor wanted to preserve a night which he considered unique.

Kraus was, nonetheless, mistaken.  The original recording was both intact and secure in the RDP's archives.  In the 70s, it had been transferred to chromium tapes to protect it from the ravages of time and later, in 1994, it was digitally remastered.  The recording in question was merely awaiting its discovery and subsequent revelation to the musical world, which in fact happened under the most casual of circumstances.  As Callas herself would say, according to the designs of fate. 
Back in 1997, RDP found itself in a crisis.  For the September 25th broadcast of the Traviata performance on the station's "Noite de Ópera" ("Opera Night") program, it was found that the tape of the intended performance could not be transmitted. To fill the gap, a new recording, preferably another "Traviata" had to be found. The radio program's director Margarida Lisboa suggested "Why not the Callas' Traviata?"
João Pereira Bastos was dismissive towards Margarida Lisboa's suggestion, since he assumed Lisboa was referring to the EMI edition, and Bastos found the sound quality of that particular edition irritatingly poor.  But that was not the recording Lisboa was referring to, however.  The RDP had its own, archived recording.  Intrigued, the director of Antena 2 inquired if there was any noticeable difference between the sound quality of both recordings.  "I think so," hesitantly answered Lisboa.  Everyone realized, after listening to the RDP's tapes, that Margarida Lisboa's reluctant reply resurrected the original Lisbon Traviata, restored to its magnificent sound.  On the 25th of September 1997, the official version of the true and original recording of the Lisbon Traviata was finally broadcast by Antena 2.


Antena 2's administration very wisely considered that it was its duty to make this historic document available to the public.  Consequently, in December 2000, the first CD edition of the Lisbon Traviata from its original source tape was issued, with no commercial intentions.  This RDP edition was merely a courtesy issue, and its copies could not be found either in record shops or similar commercial establishments.  In less than a month, the 2000 copies sold out quickly, from a reception desk inside RDP's main building in Lisbon!

The voracity of the demand was fully justified by the excellence of the edition, which included thoughtfully curated program notes and libretto (including several previously unpublished photos of La Divina), in lavish packaging exuding elegant good taste.  And the at the conclusion of the recording, a bonus track reveals a message from Maria Callas dedicated to the portuguese audience in a bonus track, taped in anticipation of her performance.
The true glory of RDP's Lisbon Traviata remains nevertheless its sound, limpid and crystalline.  Though its source is monophonic, it reveals to the listener the completeness of what took place on the São Carlos stage on the evening of March 27th, 1958, capturing even the subtlest details of Kraus and La Divina's operatic genius.
Much has been said about the detailed web of vocal inflections in which Callas created her characters.  Her Violetta breathes through the subtle embroidery of vocal colours.  One only needs to listen to the courtesan's entrance in the first act in order to witness the first sublime strokes made by the Greek soprano.  A willful "lo voglio?".  A skeptical smile in "Scherzate", the refined irony in "Voi, Barone, non foste altrettanto", followed by delicate dynamic contrasts in the famous "Brindisi".  Thanks to the superior sound quality of RDP's Traviata, listeners can feast and be marveled by many more examples of Callas miraculous artistry.  In previous releases, those same examples are muffled and obscured, seem diluted and almost disappear.  To paraphrase La Divina, when comparing RDP's reissue and previous bootleg editions, the differences are dramatic as champagne and Coca-Cola.        
Since the first edition (issued solely in Portugal) is already sold out, it is only natural that opera lovers worldwide will long for a future reissue, but the prospects are not encouraging.  João Pereira Bastos admitted that a Lisbon Traviata reissue is not a priority for RDP as a public radio station, and only in the most exceptional and justifiable circumstances does the organization produce CD editions of tapes from its archives.  The project is dependent upon the will of the stations administration as well as favourable counsel from the RDP's legal department.

It is understandable that the RDP's human and financial resources should be mainly focused on creating radio programs.  But nonetheless, opera lovers would find highly desirable if the radio station could indulge listeners with a reissue of the Lisbon Traviata, or even -- why not? -- new editions of the Ariadne auf Naxos, a Don Giovanni with Caballé, or even the São Carlos other Traviatas with Sutherland or Scotto. Opera lovers worldwide would welcome a taste of the Portuguese musical champagne now maturing in RDP's priceless archives.

Nuno Miguel Marques is a Classical Voice correspondent from Lisbon, Portugal.


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